Reviews — From the August 2013 issue

The Commitments

Love and marriage at the movies

( 3 of 7 )

In her consideration of the modern era’s “new reality” and “new morality,” from Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) to The Kids Are All Right (2010), Basinger draws a connection between marriage’s waning relevance and a lack of persuasive, “realistic” marriage movies; she concludes with the failure of the marriage movie to either flourish or innovate. “Offscreen,” Basinger observes of the post-millennium, “marriage, once an inevitable social union for most people, had become a grab bag of movie plots, recycled as deep thinking. A kind of Reality Marriage Show.” One recalls at moments like this that Basinger has been married for forty-five years to, as she puts it in her author’s note, “the same saint of a guy.” One recalls this in part because one suspects a connection between the author’s reality and her determinations of realism. Whereas, for instance, the comfy pairings in Fargo (1996) and the TV series Friday Night Lights are credited with everyday authenticity, the labored grime of Blue Valentine (2010) and its ukulele tap dance make Basinger puke.

The story of how the director Derek Cianfrance came to make Blue Valentine, a nonlinear marriage story in the style of Two for the Road, is as well known as the film itself. Cianfrance had hoped to shoot the project, about a young couple who fall in love and marry, then fall drastically out of love, across several years, but ultimately a few extra pounds and a shaved hairline sufficed; he also asked his actors to live together for a month, and encouraged long improvisations in place of scripted dialogue. Basinger singles out one such riff for special scorn: “There’s something contrived about the moment” when Michelle Williams shuffles along to Ryan Gosling’s impromptu rendition of “You Always Hurt the One You Love,” she writes, “a look-at-our-sweet-little-romance phoniness that illustrates the modern marriage movie’s inability to really believe in such things.” Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed singing “Buffalo Gals” in It’s a Wonderful Life had “authenticity. Gosling and Williams are talented, but their little song and dance is a self-conscious version of the earlier naturalistic ideas. It’s postmodern — and unreal, like the marriage they inhabit.”

Though I wouldn’t put it quite that way, there is in Blue Valentine a strain for authenticity so grimly pronounced that, more than story or character, it defines the film. Here, a fever for the “real” story, captured via “realistic” camera tics and acting style, backfires. If anything, the contemporary marriage movie wants too dearly to believe “in such things,” but must contend with times too self-conscious, and movie-conscious, for their own good. Gosling, wielding his ukulele, warns that he has “to sing goofy in order to sing. Like I have to sing stupid.” Williams shucks along with matching irony.

Imperfect though they might be, Two for the Road and Blue Valentine make use of a distinctly modern, fire-with-fire strategy whereby time and its authentications help tell a love story for an audience trapped in unreal times. One filmmaker has now committed to this design more keenly than any other, following a couple’s story, in brief but constant interludes, across eighteen years. Eighteen years so far.

is the author of This Is Running for Your Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

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